Surroundings / Rival Archives, Not Arch Rivals

Two separate plans to exhibit Jewish building and Arab history show different sides of Israeli architecture.

In what appears to be an astounding coincidence, ceremonies took place at exactly the same time on exactly the same evening in adjacent halls in the Tel Aviv Museum. One was the launch of the Israeli architecture archive, and the other was a fundraising event for the establishment of a museum of contemporary Palestinian art in Umm al-Fahm, including an archive that would document its history, the first of its kind in Israel's Arab community.

Aryeh Sharon
Sharon archives, from the book published by the Government Printing Offic

The two events are essentially two sides of the same coin. On one side is the archive in Tel Aviv, which aims to save and preserve architecture in Israel for the Jewish citizens of the state, and on the other, the museum in Umm al-Fahm, which aims to collect evidence of a legacy of Palestinian art and culture that was destroyed at the establishment of the state of Israel, and to gather up the pieces that are left.

This coincidence provides an opportunity connect the two sides of the coin and the two faces of the Israeli story.

The first object to be placed on the shelves of the Israeli architecture archive, officially known as The David J. Azrieli Central Archives and Israeli Research Center for Architecture, is more than merely symbolic: the personal records of architect Aryeh Sharon (1900-1984 ), which any architectural archive in the world would be happy to own. Sharon, a follower of the Bauhaus school, is one of the fathers of modern Israeli architecture and planning. His life's work was the first master plan for Israel, which outlined its character for generations and also created no small number of its problems.

His book, "Physical Planning in Israel," which sums up his designs, is an treasure all on its own. The national plan was an unprecedented, heroic project for the renewal of an entire country, and its new cities and towns. Many of them were built on the ruins of Palestinian towns that were demolished, and on lands confiscated when the state of Israel was established.

The differences at the starting line of these two efforts, the archive in Tel Aviv and the museum in Umm al-Fahm, accurately reflect the Israeli situation on both sides of the coin.

On one side, the Tel Aviv archive, the archive of a people without a land who came to "a land without a people," is the victor's record. It is based on a continuity of research and earlier documentation, with professional backing and institutional sponsorship, and most importantly, a well-heeled society with resources, awareness, consent and the surplus time for documentation and memorializing.

The museum in Umm al-Fahm is the museum of the losers. Its first steps are being made in a near vacuum, and being established in a society that remains occupied with a daily struggle over living conditions, identity and equal rights.

The Israel architecture archive is meant to provide a home for important collections and records of Israeli architectural history, according to its director, Dr. Eran Neuman, and it is doubtful that it will ever lack for materials. In fact, the opposite is the case.

The museum in Umm al-Fahm, on the other hand, is making a Sisyphean effort to gather evidence of a legacy that was demolished and forgotten. "Our mission is to build a museum and archive: What was destroyed in the war must be rebuilt and responsibility to do so is ours," said Said Abu Shakra, director of the Umm al-Fahm art gallery and founder of the new project along with the Al-Sabar organization.

The establishment of the Arab museum has been preceded by two years of archive building of the histories of Wadi Ara and Umm al-Fahm to provide groundwork for it, "a nucleus of work on a national scale to formulate a national identity and a collective Palestinian narrative," Abu Shakra says.

Recorded interviews with senior members of the Wadi Ara community and a series of photographs related to the project were recently exhibited in the "Place, Memory" show at the Umm al-Fahm art gallery, for which the museum in effect represents a broadening of its activities.

The Arab-Israeli legacy remains nearly only in the memories of those who still remember, Abu Shakra says, and "so this is a journey to save memory. We have nothing documented except in peoples' memories, and they are dying out."

The way to the Israeli architectural archive is already paved. It will open at the end of the year with the launch of a new wing at the Tel Aviv Museum, lodged in a handsome library in an existing part of the museum. Establishing the new wing was accomplished by finding generous donors who accompanied its first steps.

The museum in Umm al-Fahm (see box ) is a vision that has not yet been realized and it still has a long way to go before it is.

The fundraising event last week was not the first since the idea was raised, nearly a decade ago, and is more proof of the difficulties on the way.

At the festive event, Avishay Braverman, who was then still minority affairs minister, promised to help the museum, but by the end of the week he was no longer in the government.

But Abu Shakra is not discouraged. "We are not stuck and don't want to complain and are continuing to take risks."

With the announcement of the museum in 2006, in that very same Tel Aviv Museum hall, Abu Shakra presented the history of his city, "a city prosperous for hundreds of years then destroyed by wars," and declared excitedly that "the announcement of the museum is one of the most important in the Arab community's history, the announcement of the opening of a dialogue with Israeli and international culture.

The museum will have the power to bridge differences and connect cultures at the heart of an expanse rife with wars and disturbances."

The launch of the Israeli architectural archive last week compels it, professionally and ethically, to join in the effort to build the Palestinian museum.

Israeli architecture and planning are not passive agents. To a large extent they bear responsibility for the erasure of Palestinian building history and its being consigned to oblivion, and have a hand today in discriminatory planning.

An archive which calls itself Israeli is obligated to enlist its resources, abilities and reputation to aid in the documentation and preservation of the entire Israeli architectural legacy, to research and first of all acknowledge the connection between the two sides of the coin and its bequest to future generations of architects and planners and to the larger public.

This will be its contribution to the history of Israeli architecture and a suitable response against the increasingly extreme ethnocentric atmosphere.

Planning of the museum in Umm al-Fahm has known both triumphs and crises in recent years. The idea to establish a museum of art and the Palestinian cultural legacy in Umm al-Fahm has traveled a long and fascinating planning path. The first step in 2002 was an attempt to enlist elite British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, perhaps because of her background or out of the hope that she could put Umm al-Fahm on the map.

But contacts with Hadid's office bore no fruit. The next stage was to entrust the design to Arab Israeli architect Senan Abdelqader, a prominent figure on the Israeli architectural and academic scene, who created an ambitious plan focusing on a general museum as a tool that would help reestablish the urban expanses lost to the Arab Israeli landscape.

The presentation of this plan at an event at the Tel Aviv Museum in 2006 was accompanied by a sense of accomplishment wrapped in euphoria, but relations between the two sides turned sour and the project was shelved.

The current plan for the museum, a structure with an impressive public presence, is that of architects Amnon Bar Or, Lior Zionov and Lior Vitkin. Their design was chosen two years ago through a public competition with many participants. At the moment it is entering more practical phases, after land has been set aside, a program formulated, and money raised.

It will spread out over 15,000 square meters, 1,700 of which are to be built in the first stage, costing about $25 million.

The planning process is underway now, and documentation and materials are already being collected.